GPS watches are expensive, and it took me over 9 years of running to finally invest in one in December 2018. Since then, I’ve had the chance to test and compare 6 of the most popular Garmin GPS watches (through partnerships or borrowing from friends—I’m not loaded and can’t buy GPS watches willy-nilly). I think I can safely say now that I’m a big GPS watch nerd 🙂
If you’re in the market for a GPS watch, but don’t want to spend tons of money, I’ve got you covered. Based on my experience, here are the best GPS running watches under $200. And lucky for you, there are only 3 on the list, because I personally hate being overwhelmed with options haha.
As some quick background and context for my opinions, I’m a long-time distance runner who trains mostly for marathons and half marathons, and tries to go for PRs. I cross-train quite a bit though, and basically train triathlon-style for marathons, running only 2-3 days/week (it’s weird, I know). I’ve also dabbled in trail running. So, you can expect my perspective to be that of a pretty motivated road runner who also has other fitness activities.
Why Garmin? Is it the Best GPS Watch Brand?
Before I dive in, just a quick clarification: all of these watches will be Garmin watches. Why? Well, the straightforward answer is that I’ve only tested Garmin GPS watches, so I can only comment intelligently on that brand. Garmin also has the best reputation among runners, so it’s the most commonly used. This can lead to some smaller side benefits, like being about to borrow a friend or roommate’s Garmin charger (they’re all the same), adding connections on the Garmin app, or participating in Garmin challenges with friends. You’re also more likely to be able to find help in forums or Facebook groups from fellow Garmin users. (How many times can I say “Garmin” in a paragraph lol—this post is not sponsored in any way, just a big Garmin nerd).
So, if you’re looking for non-Garmin watches, this is not your post. But if you do want to learn about some of the most popular and tried-and-true GPS running watches, let’s dive in.
3 Best Budget GPS Running Watches Under $200
The following watches all track running and biking, and everyday fitness stats (steps, sleep, calories, distance traveled). They also have basic smartwatch features (text notifications, calendar, weather).
I’ll be going over their unique pros and cons, and listing how much they cost. Prices are recent as of early May 2020.
I also want to note that this post contains affiliate links, meaning that I may earn commission on any purchases you make through the links. It doesn’t cost you any extra, and your purchases help me keep my blog running, so I can keep writing posts like these to try to offer helpful advice. If you’re planning to buy on Amazon or Garmin, it would mean a lot if you did so through these links 🙂
Best Value: Garmin Vivoactive 3
I personally have a Garmin Vivoactive 3 Music, and it’s the best well-rounded watch at a great value. Here are its pros and cons.
- Has a barometric altimeter, which allows you to track elevation stats more accurately, and see floors climbed throughout the day.
- Tracks pool swimming (and other cardio activities, such as strength, cardio, skiing, rowing, golfing). It’s the cheapest (non-discontinued) Garmin watch to track swimming.
- Has a touchscreen—this can be seen as both a pro or con, as it can be harder to use in colder weather; I personally like the touchscreen and haven’t had problems with it, even in the rain (though it will sometimes be annoying in the shower).
- Can hold music, if you get the music version. You can also connect to Spotify Premium, Amazon Music, or Deezer, but you must download the songs beforehand; you can’t access them live during a run.
- Has Garmin Pay, which allows you to do contactless payments with your watch (you don’t need your phone or wallet).
- Has Incident Detection, which alerts your emergency contacts if an incident is detected (your watch must be connected to your phone)
- Like I said, the touchscreen can be seen as a con, but I haven’t had big issues with it. I do wish there were a second button though, as navigation involves short- and long-holding the single button, and sometimes it takes a couple tries to get it right. This was fixed in the Vivoactive 4, the updated version of the watch (it has 2 buttons).
- While the watch tracks pool swimming, the stats can be off if you’re not a strong swimmer with consistent strokes. It’s mostly accurate if you keep the same stroke in each lap, but I sometimes vary mine and get distances 15% greater than reality. Others say that their Garmin is spot on for swim tracking though, and Garmin also has tips to improve swim distance accuracy.
- Lacks specialized training data like Race Predictor or Recovery Time.
- The GPS can be really slow to connect if you haven’t synced to your phone recently, or if you changed locations (like one state/country to another). Once that initial connection, it usually takes 10 or so seconds to get signal.
Best Training Features: Garmin Forerunner 235
The Forerunner 235 is the most popular entry-level GPS watch, and remains a favorite today, even though it was released 5 years ago. I personally think the watch is overrated (gasp!). I actually bought the Forerunner 235 first, only to return it for the Vivoactive 3 because I thought there had to be a better value watch. While I didn’t love the Forerunner 235, it can be a good fit for some people. Here are its pros and cons.
- The GPS is super fast. I didn’t use the watch in different locations, but the GPS was the fastest to connect where I did test it, and it found signal basically immediately.
- You get extra training features like Race Predictor and Recovery Time. Race Predictor hasn’t been super accurate for me (likely because I don’t track every non-running workout), but others say it’s on the money. If you track every workout and run more frequently, it will probably be more accurate. As for Recovery Time, it lets you know how long to wait before a hard effort (it doesn’t mean to not work out at all, just to do something more moderate/easy in the meantime).
- The button navigation on the Forerunner 235 is intuitive and easy to use in cold weather.
- Uncomfortable to wear for longer periods of time, as the heart rate monitor juts out. The watch can also feel kind of clunky and plastic-y.
- Doesn’t track swimming or other cardio activities.
- No barometric altimeter, so elevation stats won’t be as accurate, and you can’t track floors climbed.
- Doesn’t track stress, unlike the other 2 watches in this list.
- Can’t hold music.
- No Incident Detection.
Most Comfortable to Wear: Garmin Forerunner 45
The Forerunner 45 is the most recent of the 3 watches, having been released in Spring 2019. It’s an update on the Forerunner 35, and is a decent entry-level GPS watch, though I find it pricey for what it offers. Here are its pros and cons:
- Super light and comfortable to wear (I tried the Forerunner 45S, which has the same size watch face but smaller case, for smaller wrists). The Forerunner 45 is about 15% lighter than both the Forerunner 235 and Vivoactive 3, and the 45S is 25% lighter.
- Tracks other gym activities, like Cardio, Elliptical, Stair Stepping, Indoor Biking, and Yoga.
- The button navigation is also easy to use.
- Has Body Battery, which is a metric that lets you know your energy levels on a scale of 0-100. It’s a feature only on the most recent generation of Garmin watches. While it may sound kind of useless (you generally know how you’re feeling), it can help you figure out when to train hard or take it easy, since the metric is based on your heart rate variability, stress, and activity levels. You also know exactly how much a certain activity (like a stressful call with your boss, wild night, or day lounging around) has stressed your body or helped it recover.
- Has Incident Detection.
- Doesn’t track swimming.
- Lacks specialized training data like Race Predictor and Recovery Time.
- No barometric altimeter.
- Can’t hold music.
Best Budget (Honorable Mention): Garmin Forerunner 35
I know I mentioned I’d only include 3 watches in this list, but I wanted to add this fourth one as a more budget-friendly, basic GPS watch. The Forerunner 35 is the older version of the Forerunner 45. The main differences are that it’s square-shaped and it doesn’t have other cardio tracking profiles (only a general “Cardio Training”), Incident Detection, stress monitoring, or Body Battery. It’s basically a bare-bones GPS watch and everyday fitness tracker with basic smartwatch functionalities. I personally wouldn’t recommend it since you can get the Vivoactive 3 for only $30 more on Amazon, but if you really don’t need the extra features, you might consider the Forerunner 35.
The Bottom Line
Here’s a more visual look at the features of these watches, in a table. I’m not including the Forerunner 35 since it’s not one of my main recommendations, and it doesn’t have really any of the below features, other than being able to track running and biking.
|Vivoactive 3||Forerunner 235||Forerunner 45|
|Running & biking||✔||✔||✔|
|Other cardio tracking profiles||✔||✗||✔|
|Race Predictor & Recovery Time||✗||✔||✗|
|Can hold music||✔ (music option)||✗||✗|
I may be biased, but even based on features, the clear winner is the Vivoactive 3. It has the most capabilities for the cheapest price (at least on Amazon for the non-music version). Unless certain features of the other watches stand out to you (like the Forerunner 235’s Race Predictor or the Forerunner 45’s Body Battery), I’d go with the Vivoactive 3. You can track pool swimming and many more activities, get accurate elevation stats, and also carry music on the watch (if you get the music version).
If you want more in-depth comparisons of these watches, check out these posts:
I’m also planning to compare the Vivoactive 3 with the Forerunner 45, and do an in-depth review of the Vivoactive 3, so check back for those later! If your budget is flexible, you should also check out my review of the Garmin Vivoactive 4 and Forerunner 245, the updated versions of the first two watches in this list.
How to Save Money on GPS Running Watches
If you’re not satisfied by the prices of these watches and want to save even more, here are my tips.
1. Look on Amazon.
I’m not a huge fan of Amazon as a company because of their business practices, and try to avoid them wherever possible. That said, they do offer some of the best prices on GPS watches, and that can make a big difference if you’re on a tighter budget. You can also track prices on Amazon using camelcamelcamel—simply enter the product link you want to track, set your desired price, and enter your email. You’ll be notified when the price drops to your desired price.
2. Buy secondhand.
If you want to avoid Amazon or save even more money, consider looking for used or refurbished watches on eBay (sometimes, there are even new ones at a big discount!). You can also try Facebook Marketplace, or even post on Facebook asking your friends if they have what you’re looking for. Just be aware that there is a risk, since you’re not buying from an authorized retailer. The lifespan of the watch could also be shorter since it’s already used.
3. Find an older model.
One final tip is to look for an older model of the watches listed, such as the Forerunner 230 or 25, which are discontinued but still available on eBay. Be sure to do your research and compare the specs of the watches though, as they won’t be the same as the current models. I personally would avoid discontinued models since they’re not as well-supported (you might not even be able to connect them to the Garmin app, or sync them with Strava). They can be great, however, if you just want basic GPS tracking and don’t want to spend a lot of money.
4. Be wary of lifestyle and general fitness tracking watches.
There are of course even cheaper watches that can track your running (Garmin even has a couple Fitbit-style watches under $100 on Amazon), but many of them aren’t made for running specifically. If you want a current GPS running watch with more than just bare-minimum functionalities, expect to spend at least $100. The last thing you want is to buy something cheaper only to outgrow it quickly, as you’ll end up spending more money overall.
I hope this post was helpful in providing an overview of some of the best and cheapest GPS running watches. Let me know if you have any questions!
I also want to encourage you to buy from local small businesses if you can (a lot of local running stores are struggling now). I obviously don’t get paid through affiliate links if you do that, so if this post helped you and you want to show your appreciation, you’re always welcome to buy me a ko-fi (kind of like Patreon, but one-time). I put a lot of work into these posts, and it means a lot to know if it helped you!